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Nancy Pearl, global rockstar of the library world, recognized for lifetime achievements

Host of “Book Lust With Nancy Pearl” receives the 2021 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community

Nancy Pearl records an episode of the Seattle Channel program “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl” at Folio in Seattle. PHOTO: CHRIS BARNES

We have some fantastic news for book lovers, Seattleites, and connoisseurs of all things heartwarming and happy in this world! Our favorite librarian, author, and host of “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl,” Nancy Pearl herself, will receive the 2021 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community presented by the National Book Foundation at the 72nd National Book Awards ceremony on Nov. 17!

The award is given to a person or organization for a lifetime of growing the nation’s books and reading audience. Past recipients include the likes of Maya Angelou, Kyle Zimmer, and Terry Gross, so Pearl is in good company. This isn’t Pearl’s first major award, either; she previously received the Women’s National Book Association Award, the Librarian of the Year Award from “Library Journal,” the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and she was the inspiration for the Archie McPhee Librarian Action Figure (Google it, thank us later).

But how, you may ask, did she end up with so many beautifully bookish awards, and does she have a separate shelf for them, or does she use them as bookends? We won’t be much help with the latter, but we do know how and why she was the obvious choice for this year’s celebration.

“For me,” says Pearl, “the Literarian Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Foundation is a validation of my whole life—ever since I was a very little girl what I loved most was reading and then talking about and sharing my favorite books with people.”

And she never stopped! Pearl credits the librarians of her childhood for inspiring her to pursue the same job. After getting her Masters of Library Science from the University of Michigan in 1967, she worked as a children’s librarian in her hometown of Detroit. She spent almost four decades in the public library systems of Detroit, Tulsa, and Seattle. She settled in once she hit the Northwest and began creating literary waves that reached international shores. They began in the form of a program that wondered what would happen if all of Seattle read the same book. It received such a warm reception and inspired so many readers that it has been replicated in every state in the country and in other cities across the globe.

Librarian Nancy Pearl photographed for her leadership in “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” campaign. Photo taken on Sept. 9, 1999. PHOTO: SEATTLE MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES

“Two words: ‘Seattle Reads.’ While it was originally called ‘If All of Seattle Read the Same Book’ when Nancy Pearl and Chris Higashi kicked off the program in 1998, they had no idea that this community reading program would inspire other community reads programs like it all around the world. Seattle Reads remains a jewel of our reading city, bringing community together to celebrate the power of story year after year,” says former student of Pearl’s classes at the University of Washington Information School and current Seattle Librarian, Misha Stone, “Start small with a big heart, and you may get your city and even the world to read together towards a better, more compassionate future.”

Stone says she now teaches those same classes Pearl did “with the same spirit of validating all books, genres, and readers, and galvanizing future librarians to advocate for this work as a means for community connections, social justice, and the power of story.” 

Stone herself won the 2021 Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America’s Librarian of the Year award. She says she wouldn’t have, had it not been for Pearl’s encouragement to her students to overcome their biases when it came to genres that are so often scoffed at in the literary community.

Stone also cites Pearl’s egalitarian approach to reading and passionate yet humble leadership in the literary community as a reason Seattle is now a UNESCO City of Literature, one of only two in the entire country to receive the designation.

Pearl didn’t just stop at encouraging people to read, she became a bestselling author herself! She wrote novel “George and Lizzie,” and a collection of author interviews, “The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives,” co-authored by Jeff Schwager, and four-title series “Book Lust,” each filled with fantastic reading recommendations. 

You may just recognize that last title from a little show that occupies our hearts, and Pearl’s program; “Book Lust With Nancy Pearl,” which has been running for over a decade. Over the years, the show has connected readers with some of their favorite authors like Terry Pratchett, Julia Quinn, and Paul Yoon. We can’t imagine Seattle Channel without it, or Seattle without her.

Nancy Pearl Book Lust slate
Seattle Channel’s book program “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl.”

“For about two decades Seattle Channel has had the honor of being the home for “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl,”” says Shannon Gee, Seattle Channel General Manager, “Nancy Pearl’s passion for literature and writing inspires a community already immersed in books and reading. It is well deserved and not surprising to hear she’s been chosen for this lifetime achievement award. Congratulations Nancy Pearl. We all come out winners and more engaged readers as a result of your life’s work.”

“The general population has no concept of how amazing Nancy Pearl is and hopefully this award will alert people and give them a broader idea of her greatness,” says Lillian Dabney, who works at Folio, where “Book Lust” is currently filmed, and we’d have to agree.

We’ll never be able to quantify the full impact of Pearl’s work, but this award goes just a little way in saying thank you, and we’ll forever express our gratitude she chose to spend this chapter of life in Seattle.

“The reading community that I’ve found in Seattle is wonderfully diverse,” says Pearl, “there are readers for every sort of book, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, whether it’s the best of the best sellers or the work of a little known author from a tiny publishing house. The message I would have for them is, of course, to keep reading, widely, madly, and deeply. And to thank your librarian today.”